March 2, 2011 10:22

Meet Billy Bishop

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The misadventures of a fumbling pilot and unlikely hero land at Triad Stage (photos by Alfonso A. Tobar — alfonso_tobar@yahoo.com)

Billy Bishop, the pilot, describing and planning his flight.

Most North Carolinians — most Americans for that matter — aren’t familiar with the wartime hero Billy Bishop. That, of course, is probably because he’s a Canadian World War I hero, and introducing him to North Carolina for the first time in 20 years are three Greensboro residents in Triad Stage’s production of Billy Bishop Goes to War.

Most war stories have a broad-shouldered, debonair, courageous hero. Such is not the case in the musical wartime misadventure Billy

Bishop Goes to War. Written and composed by Canadians John Gray and Eric Peterson in 1978, the show features a fumbling, accidentprone and unlikely hero who enlists in World War I to avoid expulsion from the Royal Military College. And although Bishop is the worst student there, he goes on to become a decorated officer of the Royal Canadian Flying Corps.

The two-man show, which features actor Josh Foldy as Billy Bishop and Jason Kraack as the accompanying piano player, is both hilarious and heart-rendering as Bishop shares his energetic stories of high-flying escapes, the loss of friends on the front lines of battle and even love.

“There’s the battle and the guts and the grime of war, but there’s also a love story in there,” Kraack said. “And it’s not often that you have good music theater that has deep subject matter and fun and a good time.”

Foldy is both actor and storyteller as he regales the audience with tales of war, taking on the roles of nearly 20 other characters he meets along the way. Reenacting 27 years of

Bishop’s life, from 1914 to 1941, Foldy is also able to slowly mature before the audience’s eyes.

“When I first read this script I was just fascinated by this extraordinary man and his story,” said director Bryan Conger. “[Billy is] somebody who came really out of nothing and made something out of himself. I think that’s a great story and that’s usually what I’m attracted to as a director. I also love the idea of a one-man, two-man kind of thing. I think it’s so interesting when one actor gets to play so many characters.”

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Josh Foldy, playing the role of Billy Bishop, discuss with director Bryan Conger some details while actor, narrator and pianist Jason Kraack plays some of the tunes.

Though his name his scarcely heard in America, the historical tales of Billy Bishop are a national phenomenon in Canada. In fact, Billy Bishop Goes to War is one of the most famous and widely produced plays in Canadian theater.

“I was flabbergasted when I looked online and there was like a million middle school and high school presentations about Billy Bishop from Canadian kids,” Kraack said. “He is a national hero; he’s just never made it to North Carolina.”

The original production not only toured across Canada, but was performed in Washington DC, both on and off Broadway in New York City, and even at the Comedy Theatre in London. The first and last to bring Billy Bishop to North Carolina was NC Shakespeare Festival, which performed the play in 1989.

“He really is a national hero,” Kraack said.

“I guess he’s kind of like our Nathan Hale.”

Although his record is disputed, Bishop is credited with 72 wartime victories and is considered a top Canadian flying ace.

Foldy adds that although the play speaks of wartime it doesn’t convey an underlying political message — it’s simply a story about a man, his life and his challenges.

“In terms of the war and using the term ‘Billy Bishop goes to war,’ it’s so easy to say it’s about Afghanistan or the Iraq war, but it’s not about that at all,” Foldy said. “It’s not a modern army story. It’s not about the United States. It’s about a Canadian experience of World War I. So, I find it hard to directly relate it to our politics. It seems more simple — more like a story of a man coming of age.”

Although Bishop doesn’t appear in our own history textbooks, Conger says he believes it’s still relatable for an American audience. “I still think we’re always involved in some sort of conflict and have men and women fighting those conflicts, and I feel like this is almost their story as well,” Conger said. “But this play speaks to something bigger — it’s more about a human story.

“I love that this play doesn’t make a comment about whether you should be in war or shouldn’t be in war. It’s more about what it does to us as human beings and what it also gives to us and what it takes away from us as well.”

Ultimately, it is that human connection that will allow Triad audiences to connect with the Canadian war hero. “He’s a self-professed goofball,” Foldy said. “sort of like the everyman, so I think a lot of people can identify with him. He’s just honest.”

Conger adds, “[The play] is a lot of fun too.

I don’t want to see it caught and mired down as this bigger message. It’s a fun play; it’s a fun piece of theater. He’s a great guy to spend an evening with.”

For the introduction of Billy Bishop, first impressions are everything and Triad Stage wanted to make sure audiences got a personal and intimate first look, which is why the performance will take place in the relaxed and romantic atmosphere of Triad Stage’s Upstage Cabaret — a separate theater space with table seating and a service bar that’s just upstairs from their MainStage in Pyrle Theatre.

To further ensure the audience’s closeness, the play will be performed “in the round,” which means audiences will be seated on all sides of the stage.

“I like that you get to see everything,” Conger said. “There’s no optical illusion; you see everything in front of you.”

Conger said even when Foldy becomes the older Bishop more than 20 years later he ages himself onstage in front of the audience so that they feel a part of the play and process.

“We didn’t want anything to get in the way of the story because it’s so interesting that it doesn’t need anything,” Conger said. “Less is more. There are hardly any props or costume changes in the show. When he changes characters he really uses his physicality and his voice and it’s fine. It works.”

With so little to get in the way between the audience and the performers, Conger said the audience will gain a closer relationship with the characters onstage and feel more a part of the performance.

“That was kind of our goal when I sat down with the designers,” Conger said. “That’s what I think is so great about that cabaret space is that you really do feel like you’re a part of it. We even have a [service] bar that attaches to the actual stage that he uses, so the audience literally is going to be in the action.”

Foldy may be the only character on stage, but he most certainly is not the only actor. The play is referred to as a two-man show and for very important reason: The onstage pianist acts as a second character for the stage, often interacting with Bishop or commenting in song on Bishop’s tale.

“They’re both Billy Bishop; they both tell his story,” Conger said.

“Jason really tells the story as much as I do,” Foldy said. “I mean, I talk for 99 percent of the time, but Jason is the storyteller on the piano. All the songs that he sings are such an

integral part of the play. Without it it’s a completely different show.”

“The score is a tool for the story,” Kraack said. “Sometimes it doesn’t move the play forward and it’s just a rehashing of what we’ve already established. It’s simple, but not simplistic. It’s very effective in telling the story and doesn’t hide the story in fanciness. It’s just a piano, so you can only get so fancy with 10 fingers.

“Music is exceptional at giving you an emotional attachment to something you know logically. It speaks across cultures. It speaks across barriers of every kind. And the original guys who performed it did a great job making it work together.”

Kraack says being the pianist in Billy Bishop is almost like a little boy’s dream come true as he feels like the sound-effects guy for a 1940s radio hour. “I was in the Bert Healy radio hour in Annie as the sound-effect guy and I get to do that again. We’re both making gun sounds and other sounds. I’m speaking German in the play. I paint the picture with the instruments that I have, and it’s really an awesome challenge.”

Although the three Greensboro residents haven’t worked extensively together before, they get along both on and off the stage. They also share one major commonality: Their gracious respect for Triad Stage.

“[Triad Stage] is the reason I came from Chicago,” Conger said. “It’s the reason I came to graduate school [at UNCG]. I wanted to work with Preston Lane [artistic director and co-founder of Triad Stage] and I wanted to work with Triad Stage. That’s why I’m here, and the fact that I’m getting to do that is a dream come true for me.

“As an artist [with Triad Stage] I feel free to really be able to explore and express myself with very little involvement from the higher-ups. They trust who they hire. Triad Stage is a family. It’s my family here in Greensboro.”

“What I love about Preston and Rich [co-founders of Triad Stage] is that they’ve always kept their eye on the prize. They always knew what they wanted Triad Stage to be and they’ve never faltered from that. No matter what the economy did, no matter what people told them to do, they kept with it and they knew what they wanted to be and what it could do for Greensboro.

“They’re not just rare here, they’re rare in America. You know, you hear about theaters that are closing down all around America. And yet [Triad Stage] is thriving and growing, so they must be doing something right.”

Though both Foldy and Kraack have worked with Triad Stage before, this is Kraack’s Triad Stage debut.

“I have been very fortunate as a performer — I’ve gone on national tours and I’ve been in regional theaters all across the country — and it is an honor to work here,” Kraack said. “I have wanted to work [with Triad Stage] ever since I’ve moved to Greensboro and to have this opportunity is definitely an honor.”

Kraack grew up in suburban Atlanta and was the son of a high school drama teacher. “She taught for 30 years — the whole time I was growing up,” Kraack said. “Theater was my after-school care and most of my formative education.”

Kraack then found himself living in New York with his wife Lindsey Clinton-Kraack, who is a high school theater teacher. When they had their baby, Eden, Kraack’s busy schedule of national tours didn’t quite work anymore. Less than two years ago, they left New York and came to Greensboro when Lindsey was hired to teach theatre at Weaver Academy.

Also teaching nearby are Foldy and his wife, Janet Allard, who are both professors at UNCG. And though they just moved to Greensboro this past August, Foldy has a longer history with Triad Stage than both Kraack and Conger. Foldy and his wife both met the co-founders Preston Lane and Rich Whittington while going to school at Yale.

Co-owner Whittington adds that both Triad Stage and its budding UpStage Cabaret truly speak of the completion of a dream.

“The UpStage Cabaret harkens back to the very roots of my and Preston’s collaboration,” Whittington said. Previously they ran a small cabaret theater in New Haven, Conn. for a couple of years before setting out to create what would become Triad Stage. They officially launched the cabaret space in 2008 as a way to expand their programming opportunities and to share new artistic voices with the community. Unfortunately their timing wasn’t great. Soon after launching the space the economic meltdown of 2008 hit, which forced them to curtail their programming and concentrate their resources on Triad Stage’s MainStage.

In the fall of 2010, UpStage was relaunched with an ambitious line-up of programming for the season that includes more than 120 performances of theater, poetry, storytelling and music.

But this space means so much more than just a second venue for Triad Stage. It also plays host to Entertainment Upstage, a series of events that includes film screenings, live concerts and poetry readings. The space has also been used by other budding theater companies, such as Paper Lantern Theatre Company for their performance of End Days.

“It’s really like a second theater opening on Elm Street,” Kraack said.

“There is some exciting work happening in the cabaret all the time,” Foldy said. “The cabaret space is really becoming an important part of the Greensboro theater community. It allows artists who aren’t Triad Stage members to work there and they bring in new people. So, it’s really a showcase of what else is out there.”

“Triad Stage has had this very successful 10 years in their downstairs MainStage space, and so now they’re opening up their cabaret space and exploring that and trying to create the upstage space as a unique place in of itself, and I think this Billy Bishop Goes to War production is going to really add to the future of the cabaret.”

Billy Bishop Goes to War runs March 3 through 19, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., at Triad Stage’s Upstage Cabaret, 232 S. Elm St. Tickets are $18 for all performances and seating is general admission. For tickets or more information call 336.272.0160 or visit www.triadstage.org.

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